THE BLOG
09/23/2014 01:44 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

The Security Mom Myth Revisited

In 2004, John Kerry had a problem with women voters. Pundits declared that Kerry was losing women voters - the so-called Security Moms - due to their deep-seated concerns about terrorism. These security moms simply trusted George Bush more to keep their children safe. Never mind that this swing bloc of mothers did not exist (security-focused women voters were Republicans), it was also clear that concerns about terrorism were not the main drivers of women's vote choice (see my piece, "The Security Mom Myth"). This narrative was but one in a long series of narratives (e.g., Soccer Mom, Waitress Mom) that stereotype and simplify a complex and diverse women's electorate.

Ten years later, here we go again. The tragic and horrific acts by Islamic State, Russian aggression and the deepening crisis in Iraq are disturbing and contribute to a sense of unease at a time when most voters think the country is on the wrong track. Recently, the NRCC launched a new ad offensive against Democrats highlighting a "weakness" on terrorism, declaring that Staci Appel (IA-3) would give "passports to terrorists," that Dan Maffei (NY-24) would give terrorists constitutional rights and that Rick Nolan (MN-08) does not support the fight against Al Queda.

Some now declare the reemergence of the Security Mom, citing surveys and focus groups that show women expressing elevated levels of concern about safety and security with ominous implications for Democrats. To be sure, an election cycle defined by security concerns would not be ideal for Democrats.

But we should not conflate an expression of concern about terrorism with it as a driver of vote choice. First, voters typically look to the President and to the military for security, not to members of Congress. (Name one Democratic incumbent who lost his or her office for voting against the first, and popular, Iraq War.) Moreover, there is a world of difference between where we are now and where we were just after the 9-11 attacks. According to Gallup, in June 2002, 46 percent said terrorism was the most important problem facing the US; just 4 percent do so today. A majority of voters says that this year, their decisions will be driven by domestic issues. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (9/3-7), 64 percent of voters say that domestic issues such as the economy, healthcare, and immigration are more important to their vote than international issues such as Iraq, Russia and terrorism (22 percent).

It is true that a few surveys suggest women are more concerned about terrorism than men: for instance, in a CNN/ORC poll (9/5-7), 18 percent of women say they are very worried about terrorism compared to 8 percent of men. But in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, there is no difference between men and women in prioritizing domestic issues over international issues when it comes to the election. In a Pew Research Center study (9/2-9), the biggest "priority gaps" between men and women are on issues like abortion, birth control, economic inequality and healthcare rather, than terrorism and foreign policy.

Finally, men are significantly more likely to support military action around the world. This has been true historically and it is true now. In another Pew study (9/11-14), women are more opposed (33 percent) than men (25 percent) to "Obama's plan for a military campaign against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria" and more concerned (46 percent) than men (37 percent) that US military action will "go too far".

There is no doubt that Americans are feeling a profound sense of insecurity and recent international turmoil contributes to this unease. But voters are still more focused on the state of affairs at home with women are no more likely to prioritize terrorism and security as a voting issue than men. Even in the "Walmart Mom" focus groups cited in most coverage of this issue, the authors note that women's concerns about the Islamic State were tied up with other issues related to safety like school shootings, Ferguson, and crime. But every election cycle, commentators trot out gender stereotypes to try to define the "women's vote" as a monolithic bloc and this election is no different.